Last Saturday the Hokies made their sixth appearance in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the most of any venue outside of Lane Stadium over the past ten years. With the 30-16 victory over Boston College, the Hokies won the 2007 ACC Championship while evening their record in Jacksonville to 3-3. Midway through the second quarter, it seemed like a 2-4 record was more likely after QB Matt Ryan scrambled his way into the end zone for BC's second touchdown of the game. Given how things were going at the time, no one could have believed that Tech would outscore BC 23-0 for the rest of the game.

But that's exactly what happened. Behind an experienced, veteran team with great senior leadership, the Hokies weathered the early storm, slowly overtook the Eagles physically, and dominated the fourth quarter to pull away with the victory and their second ACC Championship in four years.

Let's break down how they did it ...


Early Impressions

This game certainly did not start the way the Hokies envisioned. They sputtered out of the gate on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, with the exception of the FG/XP unit, BC was clicking on all cylinders.

Offensively, the Hokies were unable to get anything established against the BC defensive front. The BC linebackers were particularly problematic. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mark Herzlich were unblockable early on. The Hokies wanted to get Branden Ore and the running game established to bring those safeties out of their 2-deep sets. Because of those linebackers, nothing was available on the ground.

I was really impressed with Herzlich's size and athleticism in the running game. He is a superb tackler -- I'm sure Tyrod Taylor would agree with that assessment. Remember Herzlich is the guy that stepped in for the injured Brian Toal at that key inside LB spot. With both coming back in 08, BC will be strong at the linebacker position once again.

Defensively, the Tech game plan was to challenge the BC receivers on the outside and get pressure on Matt Ryan. As they had learned back in October, it was also very important to keep Ryan contained and not let him make plays outside the pocket.

To achieve all of that, the defensive ends set-up wide on both sides of the line and took rush angles that were up the field. DL stunts and a mixture of blitzes were utilized to give Ryan different pressure looks. In coverage, the Tech corners were matched-up on BC's outside receivers in man coverage with help from the linebackers on digs and crossing routes.

It didn't take long for Ryan to find the soft spots in the Tech defense. And every defense has them. As good as the Tech defense has been over the years, there is no defense that can defend the entire field. That is especially true when you have a 5th year QB like Matt Ryan matched with a set of wide receivers, tight ends and running backs that are all very good at executing the primary fundamentals of the passing game -- running precise routes and catching the football.

With the Tech LB's dropping deeper to cutoff those middle crossing routes, there was room in the short areas between the hashes for dump-offs and check-down passes. BC's execution was nearly flawless, with Ryan sharp and accurate and his receivers catching everything that came their way.

When the Hokies doubled or went man-free with pressure to better defend the check downs, the BC receivers ran the Tech linebackers out of the middle of the field. On two occasions, Ryan quickly recognized the man coverage by the linebackers and scrambled up the middle for big yardage -- a 19 yarder and a 14 yarder for a TD.

Bud Foster kept looking for the right formula to slow down the BC offense. To mix it up, he went with more blitz looks -- crossing the LBs, bringing the Whip LB off the strong side, the boundary corner off the weak side, and the Rover straight up the gut. None of that fazed Ryan or his protection upfront as he was able to beat the blitzes with passes to the hot receiver. Cam Martin was able to get to Ryan once with a blindside hit off the strong side blitz, but it's safe to say that BC's offense had little difficulty beating the various Tech blitz packages in the first half.


Adjustments

Everyone I ran into after the game had the same question -- what changed for the Tech defense in the second half? My answer -- the Hokies stopped blitzing.

But that was only part of it. Certainly, the Hokies blitzed less in the second half, but simply dropping more bodies into coverage wasn't the only reason the Hokies were more successful. They had to make coverage adjustments as well -- remember Ryan had little difficulty finding open receivers against Tech's base four-man rush in the first half.

The primary adjustment was to lessen the LB duties with respect to those crossing routes, shorten their drops and match them up in man-to-man coverage against the dump-off and check down options. Tackling well and playing more physical were also key elements -- it's nearly impossible to defend a dump-off pass, but it's not impossible to limit yardage and punish the receiver. Keeping the LB's tighter and freeing them up to focus on the play in front of them also eliminated any running lanes for Matt Ryan on the QB scramble.

But everything is a trade-off. Adjusting the linebacker duties required the Tech secondary to play more aggressive on the outside. That put more burden on the Tech cornerbacks because they had to clamp down tighter on routes and take the BC wide receivers in single coverage all over the field. That increased the risk of the big play, and BC hit for big yardage on two quick slants -- one to WR Brandon Robinson for 31 yards and one to WR Kevin Challenger for 19 yards (Kam Chancellor with a TD-saving tackle). But Ryan was unable to find those opportunities on a consistent basis because the Tech corners were simply better than the BC wide receivers on most plays. With his outside receivers locked down on most plays and the dump offs no longer available, Matt Ryan lost the rhythm he had established at the beginning of the game. And with Tech's defensive front stuffing every short yardage opportunity, the BC offense couldn't sustain enough drives to pull out another victory at the end.

While it's interesting to analyze the adjustments that were made, it's also important to point out that the Tech defense simply executed better and played more physical in the second half. They wore down the BC offense with non-stop effort, physical play at the line of scrimmage, and punishing hits down the field. More on that later.

How effective was the defense in the 2nd half? Check out these stats:

The Tech defense took control and made the plays when they had to have them. There would be no miracle comeback this time for Matt Ryan and Boston College.


Big Plays and Long Drives

The second half adjustments and overall execution by the Tech defense were certainly a major factor in the Tech victory on Saturday. But it's just as easy to credit this victory to several clutch long yardage drives by the Tech offense and a series of big plays in all three phases of the game.

Let's take a look at those in more detail.


First Half -- Hokies Take First Punch, Then Fight Back

Two big plays are obvious -- the blocked kicks by Duane Brown. I think BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski was accurate when he blamed both on his FG/XP operation. When it comes to field goals and extra points, "slow" and "low" are very bad words. Unfortunately for BC, on both blocks, the snap was slow and the kick was low. But give the Hokies FG/XP defense credit as well. By watching film, they knew which angle to prioritize on the rush. They double teamed the right guard and Duane Brown was able to get penetration and height on a rush directly in-line with the highest percentage kick path. The second kick was so low that it actually hit Brown in the shoulder pads -- it still counted as a block in the box score. It also counted for two points and a huge momentum swing for the Hokies.

Earlier in the first half, there was a huge play that ultimately led to Tech's first score of the game. Down 10-0 and outgained 101-18 in the first quarter, the Tech offense responded with an eight play, 77 yard touchdown drive that cut the score to 10-7. The drive was aided by two big penalties on BC -- a late hit out of bounds and a pass interference call in the red zone. But the biggest play of the drive occurred on a 2nd and 10 from the BC 46. QB Sean Glennon tried to hit WR Josh Morgan on a dig route, but the pass was off target and tipped high in the air by Morgan. Down the field, BC's All-ACC safety Jamie Silva was in position for the easy interception (it looked like he was ready to field a punt). But Tech TE Greg Boone made the aggressive play on the ball, reaching up with one hand to haul it in just before it fell into Silva's arms. That was a huge play by Boone because a turnover at that point would have been devastating for the Hokies. Instead Boone's catch kept the Tech possession alive and set up the Hokies with a first down deep in BC territory. Six plays later, Glennon hit Morgan on a well executed fade pass to the wide side of the field for the touchdown.

The next big play occurred with BC up 16-9 late in the first half. This was more of a bad play by BC resulting in a big play for the Hokies. With just over two minutes to go in the half, BC had a 4th and 5 at the Tech 40. BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski made the right decision to punt the ball in that situation, expecting the punt coverage team to pin the Hokies deep. The punt was perfectly executed, but Jamie Silva got a little too greedy. Instead of downing the punt inside the five yard line, Silva wanted to pin the Hokies even deeper, so he let the ball bounce and it kicked past him into the end zone for the touchback. That was a big play for the Hokies because if that ball is downed by Silva, it's very likely that the Hokies go conservative and play for the initial kickoff of the second half. Instead, they got the ball at the 20, opening the door for their 2-minute offense.

The 2-minute offense has become a real weapon for the Hokies in recent weeks, and it continued on Saturday. Behind Sean Glennon, the Hokies went 80 yards in 1:37 for the tying touchdown. On the drive, Glennon was 6-7 for 68 yards and a touchdown. The six completions were to five different receivers. There were three plays on the drive that were particularly impressive. The first was the 18 yard pass to Eddie Royal on the deep out to the wide side of the field. That is a very tough pass to complete as it was thrown from one hash all the way across the field. Glennon came right back on the next play and hit Royal with an 11 yard pass on the out route to the opposite side of the field. Again, it was thrown from one hash all the way across the field. Defenses almost always give up that area of the field because of how difficult it is for the offense to complete those types of passes. Glennon and Royal completed two of them on consecutive plays.

The third impressive play on the drive was the TD pass from Glennon to Josh Hyman. It was 3rd and 7 with BC defending in the red zone. The linebackers dropped halfway to defend passes at the goal line, as well as to defend anything geared to get the first down. That was key because Glennon's scramble pulled the inside linebackers up, opening up the goal line in front of the safeties. Hyman used his experience to work his way into the open area. Glennon pulled up short of the line of scrimmage, slid to his right away from pressure and found Hyman sitting down in the area vacated by the BC linebackers. The touchdown tied the score 16-16 and gave the Hokies full control of the momentum at halftime.


2nd Half -- It's Toe to Toe, Then Hokies Get TKO

With both defenses setting the early tone, it was BC that made the first move in the second half. On their second drive, BC hit for a big play on the 31 yard pass from Ryan to WR Brandon Robinson. BC continued the drive into VT territory, but faced a 3rd and 1 at the Tech 30 yard line. BC went with their power short yardage package -- three TE's and a fullback in addition to RB Andre Callender (personnel grouping "23" for those keeping score of those flip cards on the sideline). The play called was a handoff to Callender, who took it to the left side behind the fullback and big offensive tackle, Gosder Cherilus. Tech's Vince Hall filled to take on the block by the fullback and Brandon Flowers forced to take on the pulling guard. That allowed Xavier Adibi to get penetration and stop Callender in the backfield. BC went for it on fourth down and tried play action out of the same formation. But Flowers wasn't fooled and defended the fullback releasing out of the backfield. With option one eliminated, Ryan was forced to look at option two -- TE Ryan Purvis releasing behind the fullback on the same side of the field. However, Rover Kam Chancellor wasn't fooled by the play action fake either and he was in perfect position to break up the pass to Purvis. More on Chancellor's performance later.

As a side note, I'm not sure Tech stops BC in that situation in past years. Known for their big, physical play upfront under Tom O'Brien, this year's BC team was much more of a finesse team -- one that prioritized their practice time developing the short passing game. The "dink" and "dunk" style of offense can be successful, but it usually puts the offense at a disadvantage when the tough yards are needed. While Jeff Jagodzinski and Steve Logan were prioritizing the development of their passing game in practice, the Hokies were spending a lot of their practice time developing toughness with the middle drill. And it was that toughness that made the difference on Saturday in all those short yardage situations.

The defenses continued to control the game into the fourth quarter. But in watching the plays more closely, it was evident that the Hokies had slowly started to take control of the line of scrimmage. There weren't enough productive plays to get anything sustained, but down in the trenches, it was the Hokies that were playing more physical as the game developed.

And that physical play paid off midway through the fourth quarter. Starting a drive at their 16 yard line, the Hokies broke off their own 31 yard play on the long run by Tyrod Taylor. On that play, RG Sergio Render blocked down on DT Ron Brace to collapse and seal the left side and RT Ed Wang tossed aside DE Alex Smith (his knee buckled on the play). That opened up the running lane for Taylor on the QB draw. Taylor did an excellent job timing his break on the draw (he didn't rush it like many young, inexperienced QB's have the tendency to do). On the other side of the line, LT Duane Brown pushed DE Austin Giles up the field and released down the field to seal the corner, allowing Taylor to break it down the left sideline. If you get a chance to re-watch that play, keep an eye on the execution and hustle by the Tech offensive line. And then watch it again while keeping an eye on the BC defensive front. That play clearly indicated that the Hokies had taken control of the line of scrimmage against a worn down and battered BC defense.

Two plays later, the offensive line opened up a huge hole for Branden Ore off right tackle behind fullback Carlton Weatherford, TE Greg Boone and a kick-out block by Sergio Render. Jamie Silva had to fight off Weatherford's block to ride Ore out of bounds.

The next play was a perfectly executed inside zone run. Duane Brown sealed the left side with a turnout block, C Ryan Shuman cleared out NT Ron Brace and Ed Wang sealed the right side. That allowed both guards, Nick Marshman and Sergio Render, to release to the 2nd level to take out the inside linebackers. Ore popped it into the secondary for a 14 yard run. Again, the physical dominance in the trenches was very evident on the play.

The Hokies capped off the drive with the touchdown pass from Glennon to Eddie Royal. It was the same corner-post route that Glennon and Royal executed for the TD right before halftime at UVa. This time, the Hokies beat one of BC's best players -- safety Jamie Silva. The key to getting the play open was countering how the BC safeties had played in coverage earlier in the game and adjusting based on their pre-snap alignment. Throughout the game, BC's safeties had shaded to the outside out of the base Cover-2 to help the corners on the deep outs, corners, and go routes up the sideline. Even though they had seen the corner-post route on the UVa game film, the safeties still expected Tech's offense to challenge the BC coverage on the outside (remember their best corner, DeJuan Tribble, was out with an injury). Silva is a very good player, but his pre-snap alignment outside the hash clued the Hokies that he was shading to help protect the outside. Once Silva bit on the initial corner move, he was unable to recover against the much quicker Eddie Royal on the post. With that play hitting for a touchdown in consecutive games, don't be surprised to see a corner-post-corner move in the Orange Bowl, especially if the Hokies get a favorable match-up with Royal in the slot opposite a safety.

Although the Hokies had the lead, Matt Ryan and the BC offense were not done yet. After their miracle comeback in October, there was every reason for them to feel confident about their chances down seven late in the fourth quarter. But this time, it was the Tech defense that made the big plays.

After moving into Tech territory, BC nearly tied the game on a quick slant pass from Ryan to WR Kevin Challenger. Challenger beat Brandon Flowers inside on the slant move and Ryan hit him in-stride. Challenger broke through Flowers' tackle attempt and only needed to beat Kam Chancellor to score the tying touchdown. However, as he had done the entire game, Chancellor made the big play, stopping Challenger at the 19 yard line.

Two plays later, Ryan completed a short out pass to RB Andre Callender for a six yard gain. Facing 3rd and 4, Ryan tried to go back to Callender with the same play, but Xavier Adibi cut off Callender's path to the outside and forced him to alter his route. That disrupted the execution of the play and Ryan's pass sailed out of bounds. A point from Mr. Obvious here -- the Hokies are going to have a very hard time finding someone to fill Adibi's shoes, especially in pass coverage.

With that stop, BC had to convert on fourth down. On a play that was eerily similar to the game winner in October, Ryan scrambled to his left to avoid pressure and looked to throw the ball back across the middle of the field. The difference this time is that the Hokies played a different coverage (a Cover-5 look -- 3-deep on the wide side and 2-deep on the boundary) and the DE's did not lose containment. Remember the point earlier that going into the game, one of the adjustments was to set the DE's wider and have them rush more up the field in order to keep Ryan contained. Ryan's roll to the left was cut-off by DE Orion Martin and it forced Ryan back into the pressure coming from Chris Ellis on the other side. The pressure from Ellis kept Ryan from stepping into his throw. Instead, his off-balance throw was 10 yards short of the target (WR Rich Gunnell breaking open in the middle of the end zone). Vince Hall stayed home, read the play and was in perfect position to make the easy interception.

Many probably think that the next big play was Adibi's interception return for the clincher. In my opinion, the next big play came off the leg of Tech punter Brent Bowden. Unable to get a first down and run out the clock, the Hokies had to punt one more time from deep in their own territory. Bowden had not hit a good one the entire game, and a poor punt in this situation would have given BC great field position with plenty of time to take some shots at the end zone. However, it was Bowden's best kick in awhile, sailing high and deep for 47 yards and no return. Instead of getting good field position, BC needed to go 65 yards to tie the score.

BC's last shot ended in disaster for the Eagles. On second down, DT Barry Booker beat RG Clif Ramsey on the spin move forcing Ryan to throw a deep pass a split second earlier than he wanted to.

Incomplete.

On the next play, Booker beat Ramsey again, this time on the bull rush. His was able to get his hand on the Ryan pass, tipping it to Adibi for the easy pick. Adibi's speed did the rest and he took it in for the touchdown, fittingly with 0:11 seconds left on the clock.

Sweet redemption found the Hokies and the ACC Championship was theirs.


General Observations


Next Up: Kansas

Other than being a little familiar with QB Todd Reesing and All-American corner Aqib Talib, I know almost nothing about the Kansas Jayhawks. What little I saw of their game with Missouri told me that they are a well-coached, offensive minded team. They seem to have a relatively strong passing game behind Reesing and some playmakers on the outside. That could give the Hokies a few problems. Overall, I believe Tech's team speed may be the biggest difference, assuming the ten minutes I saw of Kansas football this season accurately reflected the extent of their speed.

In any event, it is an excellent opportunity for the Hokies to get their second win in one the "big four" bowls. Their first came in 1995 against Texas in the Sugar Bowl. An Orange Bowl victory would fit nicely on the program's resume.

Happy Holidays to Hokies everywhere! And I'll see you in Miami!